Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Little excitement as 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 looms

I met Buzz Aldrin 20 years ago.

It was at an event at the South Florida Science Museum in West Palm Beach, Fla., and he was there because the planetarium was named for him. He talked with a local radio talk show host named Jack Cole about the space program, and then signed books. He was genial, gracious and tolerant of the very long line of people who came to see him.

A reporter for a small local newspaper was there, and she asked me, “So what did this guy do anyway?” It stunned me that someone could have so little knowledge.

A few weeks ago, I did a story about a woman in Bradenton who sewed the flag that went to the moon on Apollo 11 and is still up there. The exhibit’s artwork was less interesting than the artifacts, including a jigsaw puzzle of The New York Times’ front page from July 21, 1969, and newspapers from Houston.

A 22-year-old girl was looking at the exhibit and I walked up to her to ask her what she thought. She seemed pretty bright but admitted that she actually had had no idea that there had been space missions to the moon in the past, and that men had actually walked on its surface. Florida’s public schools are focused mainly on standardized testing because that’s how school administrators get $150,000 a year jobs in the system, and subjects like history and science are considered disposable.

It’s hardly a surprise. Many people I talk to have no idea that there was a time when giant Saturn V rockets took men into space. No one has left the gravity of Earth since December 1972, 37 years ago, when Apollo 17 set off to explore the mountains of the moon. I’ll grant you, the space shuttle has done some good work and the International Space Station is important, too, but 37 years of orbiting the Earth is a bit much.

A few months ago, I met a journalism colleague named Pat Duggans at a library in Sarasota. He was talking about his book “Final Countdown,” about the end of the space shuttle program, and asked the audience which mission was the first they remembered. I replied, “Apollo 8,” the first mission to the moon. Duggans said he had talked to several people in and around the space program who still believed, even after all the missions to the moon, that Apollo 8 was the most exciting.

For the first time, humans were breaking free of the bonds of earth. For the first time, men were riding atop the Saturn V. For the first time, human eyes (as opposed to space probes) would see the “dark side of the moon.” And on Christmas Eve 1968, a live TV broadcast from lunar orbit brought it all home to us that three members of the human race, while studying the surface of an alien world, wanted us to share it with them.

It was an exciting time, but the best was yet to come. I still remember the excitement building for the Apollo 11 mission, which was to be the first to land men on the moon. In my family, we prepared for the party. It was a Sunday night, and we learned that the moonwalk would happen at 9 p.m. The scene was re-enacted in the movie “Apollo 13” and I’m sure many people still remember it, watching that ghostly image of Neil Armstrong coming down the ladder and then stepping off into the universe.

It saddened me that future missions – save for Apollo 13 – did not get the attention they deserved. Those astronauts who walked on the moon and orbited its surface saw the most astonishing wonders and we learned an enormous amount about the moon, and even today we’re learning from those samples they brought back more than 35 years ago. And a mission in October will set off an explosion on the moon, visible from the Earth to those of us with telescopes, that may open up even more wonders.

One time, I was at my grandmother’s house and the TV was on. And on the TV was a scene from the moon, with the caption “Live from the surface of the moon” under a shot of a man in a space suit. Imagine that, live pictures from another world. In 1972, people, it was a big deal to me if to no one else.

I dreamed of being an astronaut and going into space, but a stunning incompetence with math and the political currents of the age worked against me. I had to set my sights lower and watch as others set off for what’s beyond Earth. The closest I’ve gotten in aboard commercial airliners; maybe I can have my ashes sent into space after I die, but I’ll never be a spaceman.

People who were still interested in space exploration were called “space cadets” and ridiculed. Who really cared about a bunch of guys going somewhere and bringing back a bunch of rocks? It was all a canard, some said, and there are still those who believe the Apollo program was shot on a soundstage at a top-secret location, and that the men who went to the moon were threatened with awesome punishments if they revealed the truth.

It sounds almost absurd to say that I believe the astronauts when they say they went to the moon. It’s like saying computers don’t exist.

I can wonder at the awesome achievements in the past, and the achievements to come. Maybe I’ll live to see humans return to the moon, watching on TV as they explore that place just 240,000 miles away. Maybe they’ll find the old Apollo hardware and take us on a tour, showing us the descent stages of the lunar modules, the flags, the Rovers from Apollos 15, 16 and 17, the tracks from feet and wheels, and that golf ball that Alan Shepard hit on Apollo 14.

Maybe a new generation will learn that there was a time when people went to the moon and did things that scarcely seem believable today with equipment that seems impossibly ancient. But it happened, it really happened.

On July 20, 2009, for a moment I think we should forget about our problems, our cares, our worries, and honor that day when human beings decided it was time to become, as Carl Sagan once said, “citizens of the cosmos.”

While I was still working for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, I was doing one of my least-favorite jobs – editing the calendar listings – when I noticed that a local science museum was having an event with Dr. Edgar Mitchell, who walked on the moon on Apollo 14. He and Alan Shepard explored the Fra Mauro region of the moon, and it was the most awesome honor I can imagine as a reporter to have had the chance to shake hands with a man who had gone to the moon. He was friendly, gracious and very generous with his time, both with me and with the people and children who came.

He answered the kids’ questions and shared some of his ideas and philosophy with them. Mitchell is truly a man of the cosmos, even if some of his ideas are not totally accepted. Still, when a man has walked on the moon, I’ll listen to what he has to say.

Another voice is that of President John F. Kennedy, who of course made this declaration in his “Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs” on May 25, 1961:

“I therefore ask the Congress, above and beyond the increases I have earlier requested for space activities, to provide the funds which are needed to meet the following national goals:

First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior.”

But the best expression is, I think, the speech he gave on Sept. 12, 1962, at Rice University in Houston:

“Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolution, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it — we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding. …

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Maybe July 20, 2009, will be the beginning of a new time when we reach out and really begin a work that’s more than just going someplace, but making a better life for us all.

Of course, that’s from a charter member of the “space cadet” corps, but I can always hope.

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July 5, 2009 - Posted by | Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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